Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma: a leisurely, inoffensive take on Austen

The latest in a long line of adaptations of Austen’s novel doesn’t attempt anything too radical.

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The most recent film of Jane Austen’s Emma was Aisha, a glossy Bollywood take from ten years ago, though with its scenes of beach volleyball and trips to the mall, and its on-screen graphics showing scribbled love-hearts and devil horns, this was patently a remake-of-an-update-of-the-novel. Its true source material was Clueless, from 1995, which transposed Austen to late 20th-century Beverly Hills. That incomparably joyous movie upstaged the following year’s more conventional version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and signalled that any film-maker who went back to basics with this material might now face an uphill climb.

Step forward Autumn de Wilde, American director of music videos, whose new Emma in no way resembles the work of a director of music videos. The pace is measured, even leisurely, the sets and costumes spiffy but unflashy. Christopher Blauvelt’s unvaryingly bright cinematography would make the John Lewis lighting department seem noirish in contrast.

Perhaps that’s just a by-product of casting Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead. Her full-beam headlamp eyes illuminate any shot she appears in, fittingly enough for a character who takes a meddling interest in the affairs of others without appreciating the dazzling and destabilising effect she has. Overseeing the prospects of the gauche Harriet (Mia Goth), this matchmaker extraordinaire steers her away from the farmer who might feasibly make her happy and towards the obsequious pastor Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor), who harbours not the least interest in Harriet other than as a stepping stone to bring him closer to Emma.

Observing all this puppeteering with an air of sceptical amusement is Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who resides at a country pile neighbouring the village of Highbury. Here, Emma lives with her skittish father (Bill Nighy) and a full complement of servants, whom the director has permitted to exchange the occasional quizzical glance at the foibles of the rich. Reduced to having only one servant, and therefore considered straitened, is the babbling Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who is anticipating the arrival of her niece, and Emma’s bête noire, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), a girl much-discussed in the village, though chiefly by Miss Bates herself.

Eleanor Catton’s screenplay doesn’t attempt anything too radical, apart from the decidedly un-Austen-like touch of linking Emma and Mr Knightley via a visual echo of their bared buttocks – his exposed while getting undressed, hers when she raises the back of her skirts to warm herself by the hearth. Elsewhere, de Wilde seems at a loss for what to do with the camera and isn’t always in control of what she shows us. She must have known that a shot of schoolgirls in blood-red shawls and cream bonnets would summon invidious thoughts of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the association serves no purpose unless parallels are being drawn between Highbury and Gilead. If they are, then someone along the way has badly misunderstood Austen.

More interest is to be found in the cast, which is characterised by some off-kilter choices. “I feel kind to her whenever I think of her,” John Henry Newman famously said of Emma, but that isn’t the case with Taylor-Joy. From the moment we see her bossing a maid, there’s a chill and a bite to this actor that makes the second part of her surname a faint misnomer. Our interest is piqued but never quite our affection, making it far less of a shock than it should be when Emma insults Miss Bates during a picnic at Box Hill. Miranda Hart, pierced as if by an arrow and with no register to respond in other than the subservient, is spectacularly fine in this scene. She and Josh O’Connor, whose ear-to-ear grin suggests he could have played the Joker without recourse to face-paint, mop up most of the laughs, though this is not a film for vegans: every last bit of comic business is milked and over-egged.

Some of Flynn’s obvious discomfort as Mr Knightley can be blamed on his costume – he told Vogue magazine that the high,  stiff collars gave him “a weird sort of ear chafe”– but the rest arises from his natural tension between the tender and the coarse, already shown to more seductive effect when he played a Heathcliff type in Beast. And it should be said of Goth, with her astonished Shelley Duvall expression and her unformed foetal features, that she makes it abundantly clear why Emma would adopt Harriet as a pet.

If the press has been weirdly uninterested in de Wilde recruiting a Waller-Bridge to her cause, then that’s because it’s the other Waller-Bridge – Phoebe’s sister Isobel, who has produced with David Schweitzer a score several degrees less subtle than a neon sign flashing the words “THIS IS A COMEDY” above the screen. Highlighting every emotion as ingratiatingly as those love-hearts and devil horns in Aisha, it is even employed by the director to bolster physical gestures, so that the sight of Mr Elton raising his eyebrows is matched by the “ding!” of a triangle. Watching the film turns out to be an inoffensive way of passing two hours, whereas listening to it is like being stabbed to death with piccolos. 

Emma (U)
dir: Autumn de Wilde

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose

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